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Taqueria El Tapatio, embraced by la Virgen and the Houston Department of Health.

Image: Alice Levitt

Remember when short ribs were exotic? If you grew up in Mexico, Korea or any number of the other countries that got the memo, you probably don't. But it's only been a decade or so since Americans really embraced the hard-to-cook treasure. It's taken a cultural shift toward food obsession to convince most of us that a long braise or marinade is worth the time and effort. 

But lazy cooks have another option: They can head over to Taqueria El Tapatio for a sizzling plate of costillas de res. That's what I did last night and my fingers still smell faintly of garlic and lime.

When I arrived just before 7 p.m., I was alone in the large dining room. But little by little, a small dinner crowd filled the restaurant, convening near the jukebox to groove to awesome, tuba-backed norteño music. Watch this video, but don't blame me if you have a mild seizure.

Jars of aguas frescaslimonada, jamaica and horchata—sat on the counter. A $1.89 small horchata, thick and cinnamon-heavy, was so big that I wondered aloud what a large looked like. My friendly server pointed to cups that resembled 7-11 Big Gulps. It came in handy to cool my mouth while eating the chips with cilantro-dotted salsa hot enough that I had to keep eating it just to quiet the burn.

Ordering wasn't easy at El Tapatio. As the name suggests, there are plenty of taco options, but also enchiladas in spicy tomatillo sauce and an entire page of seafood, including ceviches and several preparations of whole tilapia. There are no fewer than four varieties of menudo alone.

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Costillas de res, $12.95.

Image: Alice Levitt

But cattle gets the most attention. There's sautéed beef cheek, steak fajitas, sirloin covered in cactus or ranchero sauce and milanesa, to name a few. But I couldn't resist the costillas de res. The skillet came to my table hissing as the beef and onions beneath it sizzled. The ribs were crosscut like Korean galbi, and the tender, garlicky meat wasn't far different, but was without the sweetness. I filled the accompanying corn tortillas with mild guacamole, pico de gallo, onions and slices of both beef and grilled jalapeño, before squeezing some lime on the assembled fillings.

At first bite, I was swept away in fatty ecstasy, and my mouth smeared with rendered tallow. Between tacos, I nibbled on the morsels of meat I wasn't able to slice from the bone, as well as watery but smoky charro beans studded with bacon that melted between my teeth. I had my mind set on ending my meal with a pan dulce, but I hadn't planned on demolishing the entire plate. I just couldn't help it.

Taqueria El Tapatio, 4550 N. Shepherd Dr., 713-695-9423

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Taqueria El Tapatio

$$ Mexican/Tex-Mex 4550 N. Shepherd Dr.

In addition to the usual suspects of combination plates, El Tapatio's menu boasts four varieties of menudo and an entire page of seafood including ceviches a...